Story of the Tea Bag and Us

different tea bags hanging on strings

The tea bag has a curious story. The typical tea bag of today is an invention of the 20th century. It became popular towards the second half of the last century. Before that, all tea that was consumed in the world was loose-leaf. How very different the tea-drinking experience used to be. It required more presence, attention and intention on the part of the tea drinker even before the drinking could begin.

The end-product matters, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, most of the black tea sold in modern tea bags has the lowest grade of tea quality. However, what tea-drinking can remind us about is the importance of experience. It is the entire process from the tea plant to the cup that characterizes a tea experience.

When I take time to prepare a good cup of tea, when I pay attention to the right temperature, the right amount of tea leaves used for one cup so that they have space to move and release their flavour, the right time to allow the tea to steep, what I get is not just a cup of a warm beverage. I create an adventure for all the senses, mind included.

How the Tea Bag Came to Be

The origin story of the tea bag is rather curious. Specifically, the tea bag was an accidental invention with a bit of misunderstanding thrown in.

“In 1908, Thomas Sullivan, a tea merchant from New York City, sent his clients samples of tea in small silk drawstring bags. He expected them to remove the leaves from the bag before infusing them, but they brewed the tea directly, in the bags, and were so pleased with the results that they asked for more to be sent similarly packaged.”

Linda Gaylard, 2015

Fast forward from the incidental confusion at the beginning of the 20th century to the modern days and we have a whole tea bag commercial industry. Unfortunately, unlike Sullivan’s clients, contemporary tea drinkers who use tea bags mostly do not get nicely packaged loose leaves. What we often find in the commercial black tea bags of today is called fannings (like the 2 white-ish tea bags in the middle of the picture above): “pieces of tea leaves considered unsuitable to be sold loose.” (Gaylard, p37) 

It starts with the production process. Because of the large demand for the convenience of a tea bag, the quality of the content has necessarily suffered, as the manufacturers focus on large amounts, reduced costs and consistent taste from harvest to harvest. The consequence of this is not only the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to make sure the harvest is always good and stable but also the way how the harvest is processed. 

Invented in the 1930s and used only to produce black tea in bags, the processing method is called CTC – crush, tear, curl. These words describe what the factory does to the tea leaves once they are fed into the processing machines. Only the leaves of a lower quality grade are used for this type of production – those that cannot be sold as loose leaf tea. After the crushing, tearing, curling and final touches, the tiny dust-like pieces of the tea leaves – fannings – end up in the equal-sized tea bags where they are tightly packed. This product will end up in many teacups worldwide.

Such is the curious story of the tea bag. What started as mere accidental (and misunderstood) convenience turned into the huge industry of low-grade quality black tea in tea bags. Fannings replaced loose leaves to satisfy the demand for a quick and easy cup of tea that always tastes the same.

Tea Bag and Self-knowledge 

Here is a thought experiment: if I offered you a quickly and easily accessible product for your convenient daily use and assured you that, while it’s rather poor quality, your experience with it will be passable and always the same, would you be interested? Perhaps, rather unexpectedly, the tea bag story can help us get to know ourselves better.

 keep exploring!

Resource used: Linda Gaylard (2015) ”The Tea Book”, Penguin Random House

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